Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The last weeks in village

13 Nov 2008

I’ve been procrastinating on writing updates. Then I realized that once I move to Lomé, I will probably have less interesting stories to tell. Now it’s time to play catch-up.

The World AIDS Day presentation the peer educators prepared went… it happened. It was at the elementary school, and our crowd consisted of students, teachers and a few random men. I invited a guy who’d helped train the peer educators, hoping he’d bring other men and women from the village. Instead, he commandeered the presentation, interrupting to explain and add information, then telling a dirty joke he told at my party at the end of the talk (it’s not even funny a joke). I just sat back and let things proceed, interjecting only to transition themes.

I thought it would be fun to have freebies, so I requested t-shirts, caps, key chains, bottle openers and condoms from PSI. This was actually a stupid idea, because it perpetuates the idea that if you go to a talk, you’ll get something. And everyone mobs and scrambles to get their “gift”, which can be disruptive. Then they complain when they get nothing. I gave t-shirts and hats to peer educators and certain people who helped prepare the activities. Peer educators who rarely attended meetings and were absent both at stuff-distribution and for World AIDS Day got nothing. They were very upset (“But we’re peer educators!”). Strangers are still asking me for key chains.

Further evidence that free stuff draws crowds: last week, the Togolese government held a mosquito net campaign and the women came in hordes. The nets are free for anyone with children age five or younger. The children get a vitamin A pill and a pill for parasites. But the women are all there for the nets. We have nets for sale at the clinic, but who comes then? If they’re free, though, women will stand in the sun all day and push, wrestle and yell to get a net. I was at the clinic from 8 a.m. until 4:50 p.m. on Tuesday, feeding kids pills, something children love eating. The clinic staff had to beat people back on multiple occasions.

On Wednesday morning, we ran out of nets around nine. Staff told women to go home, and some did. But when a truck arrived with more nets, I looked outside and could see women with their children running from the huts, paths and the bush surrounding the clinic. It was insane.

After World AIDS Day, I organized reproductive health talks at the middle school. I persuaded four other volunteers to come to Sagbiebou and help me. We each had our own classroom – four rooms of boys and one for all the girls (83 of 363 students). We talked about reproductive organs, sex, contraceptives and alternatives to sex. With a teacher’s assistance, I went into more detail than I feel I could have comfortably gone into in an American classroom. My theory is that French acts as a barrier and I’m more comfortable with certain subjects because it’s not my first language. Or perhaps I just have no shame.

Today I took my neighbor, Alima, to the Gando market (Gando is 17k away and home to my closest neighbor, Andrew). She’d never been, so I said we would go before I left. I imagined strolling around, looking at cloth, maybe having lunch. We arrived, went to Andrew’s, then hit the market. She shopped for a mat until she found an acceptable price, which took about 10 minutes.

“Ok, do you need anything? I’m finished.”

I tried to do the stroll-and-shop thing, but it was almost impossible to walk through the crowds. So I got what I needed and we left. I think we spent maybe two hours in Gando, max, including the wait for the car. But now Alima can say she’s been to the Gando market.

I move to Lomé on the 22nd and am already nostalgic for village. When I catch myself thinking, “How can I leave?” I respond by reminding myself of heat rash, peer educator meetings, overbearing mothers at the clinic and the wildlife just waiting to take over my house. But I’m still eyeing the calendar for three day weekends when I could come visit.

Please send any mail to the original address in Lomé. Email me if you don’t know what that is.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving update

21 Nov 2008

No death or disaster in the last few weeks, so I promise only good, interesting stories today.

I got the PSI job! I’m waiting for the official letter, but last week, the Peace Corps country director heard me complaining about my state of limbo (do I start new projects or am I moving?) on the ride to Dapaong in the air-conditioned Peace Corps car. She called Lomé and confirmed my invitation to begin at PSI in January. I haven’t told anyone village yet, but the Peace Corps community knows. Our rumor mill is so effective: tell two people, and complete strangers congratulate you on your way back to village.

I’m sad to leave Sagbiebou and “Madame Awa.” Children will not shout my name and run up to touch or grab my hand each time I pass. Lomé means anonymity, but that’s ok – less of a readjustment to make when I return to the States. Finishing my service in the capital will also be less satisfying than completing two years in village. But every time people come late, if at all, to a meeting, I look forward to working with Togolese in a professional setting (where I will also probably be made to wait for meetings to start). Maybe I’ll hate it. Lomé is certainly more stressful than village – more harassment, more filth, more traffic. And it’s dangerous, but so are New Orleans and East St. Louis. I’ll just make friends, watch my back and hope for the best.

Volunteers say everything in Togo is more intense, especially our emotions, our ups and downs. So it’s difficult to say if all the coin-flipping and deliberating preceding the PSI news was my own indecisiveness or that compounded with the Togo intensity factor. It’s also hard to say whether my reaction to the following incident was normal Linda or Linda+Togo.

Yesterday, for the first time, someone who is neither Gabe nor my parents called me from the States. One of my college roommates got engaged on November 9th and finally succeeded in reaching me on the phone. Logically, I reacted by squealing, laughing, crying, dancing and jumping around my house, even after hanging up. I realize this is old news to the rest of the world, but congrats to Katie and Kris, and thanks for making my day.

That day was proceeding bizarrely, as days in Togo tend to do. I spent an hour at the middle school waiting for someone who never showed. Then I moved on the clinic, stopping at the Catholic deacon’s house to drink tchakba (millet beer, which is gross. Also, he may not be a deacon, but he helps leads services) and eat soja, which is basically tofu. I had been checking on their youngest daughter, who had diarrhea for weeks, but I think she’s ok now. I still check now and then, and sometimes I time my visits for Thursday mornings, tchakba and soja day. (Update on 11/27/08 - actually, I went by again yesterday and found out Irene, the little girl, died on Tuesday in Mango. I just love when my assumptions are so off-base).

I arrived at the clinic just as the mid-wife received a little boy who had fallen and bitten through his lower lip. They sent him to Bila for stitches, and because blood and needles make me all twitchy, I watched. Bila asked me to “help”, so I held the kid’s hand and tried to distract him by trickling cool water on his burning forehead. Either the anesthetic the clinic uses doesn’t work or they don’t wait long enough for it to settle in, because the kid cried the whole time. Granted, the needle looks like a curved industrial staple and Bila shoved it through the boy’s face six times. I wanted to cry. He was a very brave boy, because he could have screamed and fought, but opted just to cry. If the clinic had lollipops, I would have given him one.

That evening, it rained, which is absolutely freakish. We’re in harmattan, the dry, windy period that falls between the hot and rainy seasons. The last rain fell mid-October, and it’s really not supposed to rain again until May or June. I liked it, but it’s not good for people’s cotton. Andrew, my neighbor, also picked exactly this hour of the day to bike back to his village. When going for a bike ride, never believe a Togolese when he says it’s not going to rain.

The day before the rain and stitches, the landlord celebrated his son’s baptism, or naming ceremony. They call it baptism, but since they’re Muslim, I’m sure it’s different. I can’t actually describe the ceremony, since I missed it. No one called me, and I was taking my cue from the women who were sitting in the compound courtyard. I kept an eye on them while I baked a cake, planning to join them when they went outside the gate, where the ceremony was to be held. Then all the men came back and I was told, “Baptism’s over, time to party!”

Despite carrying the baby for nine months and then delivering it (you know, like the mail, no big deal), the wife doesn’t participate in the naming ceremony. None of the women do. They just get up at four in the morning and cook all day for the men, then sit around waiting to serve them. WHAT?

I did get to go to the dance party that night, but after dancing with all my little kid friends, who insisted that at least four of them hold my hands at all times, I was pooped. Then the dance party turned into a dance show, with everyone else watching two to four people show off unimpressive dance moves. I need more than that to keep me from my bed.

Anyway, the kid has a name now, which I forgot. His sister, a few weeks older and born to the other wife, the one I didn’t know was a wife, is Rachida. And for the record, my landlord has three wives. That’s a lot of wives.

25 Nov 2008

On Sunday, I celebrated my 25th birthday by organizing a small party for friends and co-workers in village. I invited about 17 people. I was worried that all the uninvited would be angry with me and that the party would be a disaster (I’m a pessimistic worrier when it comes to my own plans and projects). Instead, it went better than expected and only one person has commented about his non-invitation.

During the week before the party, I bought ingredients for the dinner, following Saibou’s wife’s instructions. I gave money to a clinic employee to buy 10 guinea fowl. We decided he could probably get a better deal than me with my Caucasian disadvantage (white=rich=higher prices). On Sunday morning, Falila, Saibou’s wife (la grosse, “the fat one”, as opposed to “the one who works for the microfinance”), prepared the food. In a text message, I asked Saibou what time I should come over to help.

“The cooking starts at noon.”

When I arrived at 12:20, the cooking was nearly finished, and I doubt Falila would have allowed me to do anything anyway. They let me buy and transport the kaffa, the white startch we ate with the sauce. Then they fed me fufu for lunch.

After all Falila’s work, I hoped she would come to dinner. I told Saibou to bring a wife, but as usual, the women stayed home. Still, the male to female ratio was pretty close (7:5) – Madeleine and Yendar from the clinic came, and Maïmouna, my market friend, and Moulika, the seamstress, were also there.

We had dinner at the bar, crowding into one of the round, thatched-roof pavilions (“pavilion” is really too grandiose a word for what the Togolese call a paillot. It’s not a hut, because it doesn’t have walls. It’s a paillot. Best word there is for it). Everyone ordered beer, or soda for the more observant Muslims, and then we ate our kaffa, sauce and guinea fowl.

While waiting for the eating to begin, people told histoires drôles, or “funny stories” – jokes. Some PG, but mostly really dirty jokes, with gestures. Some of them were funny, but perhaps I should have provided music for dancing, instead.

Before the night ended, my guests surprised me. While we rested before second helpings, Saibou, who I assumed was on his cell phone in the bar’s yard, stuck his head into the paillot:

“You know we’re not here for a funeral. Santa Claus is arriving soon.”

Then Bila came in carrying a plate with four candles and a “cake”, a pile of Animal Cracker-like cookies. Everyone sang “Happy Birthday” in French, I got teary-eyed and then failed at blowing out only four candles at once.

And that was my party. We ate watermelon for dessert, and then people went home. I’ve had better parties, but this certainly beat last year’s 50k bike ride and warm Coke. Plus, some volunteer friends are spending the night Wednesday, and I expect there will be more celebration then and on Thanksgiving.

On that note, I wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving (sorry if this is late, I’m not sure when I’ll get to functioning internet). Thanks to all who’ve read and commented on my rambling notes all year.

Friday, November 7, 2008

More gloom and doom

6 Nov 2008

I learned somewhere that it’s best to end things on a positive note, so I’ll give my depressing news first, then end on what I consider a fantastic note.

Last week, a village acquaintance died in Mango. He was good friends with my neighbors and spent many hours in our compound. He and I joked that when I taught his kid English, he would give me motorcycle lessons, which is against Peace Corps rules so not something I could do anyway. He had an accident a few months ago that put him on crutches, and when Alima (Mrs. Neighbor) told me he died, I realized I hadn’t seen him for a while. I assumed this was because I’d been running around Togo, but he’d gone to Mango and Kara for treatment. In Kara, they sent him home to his family in Mango, I guess to die. Alima said he had a liver problem. Saibou, my nurse counterpart, guessed a tumor. He’s probably right – the man was always extremely thin. I was still surprised, because I didn’t know he was sick.

On Tuesday I heard more sad news. While I was visiting the new volunteer in Mango, his counterpart, Mr. N (“N” because his name is long and I’ll only butcher the spelling), came by to explain why he could not take the volunteer to see his village that day. His son had drowned in the Oti River. Mr. N had called the new guy to tell him the night before, but New Guy only understood “accident”. I’ve talked to Mr. N frequently in the last months because he was coordinating the construction of New Guy’s house. He said a few kids decided to go out in a canoe and it flipped. Some of them could swim, but not his son.

“Why wouldn’t you teach your kids to swim if you live near water?” I thought, and for once I only thought it. He was composed for a father who’s just lost a child, but people react to death differently than we do in the States. I haven’t seen many adults cry since I’ve been here. Maybe people are just more accustomed to death.

And now the positive note. On Wednesday morning, I woke up and from various radio stations, pieced together that America elected its first black president. I listened to the stories on the BBC all day (based on the broadcasts, all other current events took a holiday to celebrate Obama’s elections), breaking up my listening with excursions around Sagbiebou, where everything was exactly same. United States what?

I got a little thrill out of delivering the news to Mr. Neighbor, with my toothbrush hanging out of my mouth (what a messenger). He thought that was great, but now comes the real test: will Obama govern well? He compared getting elected to getting married – good job, you got married, but now let’s see if you can manage your family. Then he went off on Bush and how America has wasted lives and billions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Someone’s done his homework.

Saibou and I also had an interesting conversation. I asked him if he’d heard the news and he said, yes, that’s why he was tired. He’d stayed up watching television in Mango while the American fell asleep by 10:45 in village. He asked why so many people were crying. Again with the crying – what adult cries in public, especially at election results?

“They’re happy. He’s America’s first black president. This means a lot for many people,” I explained. “I cried a little when I heard. I’m about to cry now! It’s a big deal.”

“Ok. Is he really considered black, though? He’s really light-skinned. But his dad’s from Kenya, right?”

“Yes. Some people said that he wasn’t ‘black enough’, but yes, he’s black.”

Later he asked if in the States, people call out, “Black man! Black man!” or “White man!” like the kids here yell, “Yovo!” at any light-skinned person here. I said no, that would cause problems in most situations.

Finally, he asked why the rest of Africa was so thrilled.

“What do they think Obama is going to do for them? He’s America’s president, not Africa’s.”

I decided that was a rhetorical question, but I think he’s right. No matter what foreign policy or international aid changes occur in the next four years, I doubt places like Sagbiebou will see much change.

And now I’ve totally failed my goal to end positively.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Vote for CNN Heros

Hello, all -

Ok, I apologize for writing again so soon after that painfully long update yesterday, but here I am anyway. I just got the following email Liz McCartney, my former supervisor at the St. Bernard Project in Louisiana, where I volunteered for about six months before Peace Corps. Here's her email:

"I am writing to ask you a strange favor. I was selected as one of
CNN's Top 10 Heroes of the Year. This came with a $25,000 award that I
donated to SBP. I am now in the running for the $100,000 prize which
will determined through online voting. And there is no limit to the
number of times you can vote. So, I am writing to ask if you will go
to cnn.com/heroes and vote for me. (Louisiana style -- early and
often!) If you could spread the word and encourage your family and
friends to do the same, I would really appreciate it. As you can
imagine, SBP could really use the $100,000 prize!

Things at SBP are going well. We celebrated the completion of house
151 last week. We are moments away from opening a mental health
clinic, developing affordable rental housing for seniors and, most
likely, opening operations in New Orleans..."

So you can see they have come a LONG way from eight volunteers a week and operating out of two rooms in an old appliances repair shop (although they might still be there, I'm not sure). Please take the two minutes it will take your speedy internet to get you to the website and vote. And then tell your friends!


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Worst Week Ever/Longest Update Ever

After a great weekend of work and play in Dapaong, I joined six other volunteers and six Togolese counterparts on Savanes’ AIDS Ride 2008. We biked out of Dapaong on Monday morning at 7:30 a.m., and thus began the worst week I’ve had in Togo.

I’m afraid this update may come off as nothing but complaints and whining, but at least some of it is legitimate. Bear with me.

The first day went fine, with the exception of an hour-long lunch delay. The AIDS talks went well all week, although we had to cancel a few due to logistics. We stopped for the night at a school in Namoundjoga, somewhere south-east of Dapaong, showered, ate dinner, then relaxed while the counterparts met with our coordinators (two volunteers).

This is where things began racing downhill. The counterparts expected per diem, which was not in the budget. The coordinators promised to try to make arrangements. I learned about this later, as we weren’t invited to the meeting and I was busy falling into a Benadryl-induced sleep. I had nearly crossed over into unconsciousness when I heard what sounded like bikes falling. It took a few minutes, but I eventually convinced myself that I should get up and try to help with whatever was happening.

What happened did involve bikes and falling: one of our coordinators passed out while moving a bike, then had some kind of a seizure. The chase car driver drove the other coordinator and I out until we found cell phone coverage and could call Lomé. Our medical officers decided our friend should go back to Dapaong that night, then down to Lomé the next morning, accompanied by another volunteer. So in one night we lost two volunteers, and our second coordinator was left to deal with budget issues, food arrangements, village chiefs, volunteers and difficult counterparts – with only my weak attempts at assistance as comfort (Coordinator #1 is now in the States for medical examination, and we sincerely hope she’ll be rejoining us soon).

So, terrible start to the week there. The next day was OK, but of course, Coordinator #2 was stressed all week, and I was stressed for her. Wednesday was the worst for me. I woke up tired, then thought I was going to faint or vomit before the first presentation. I did neither. Instead, after one of our skits, I turned to exit the “stage” and slammed my head into a beam with such force that I ended up on the floor. Everyone panicked. A counterpart nearly pushed a desk on me trying to help. Very, very embarrassing – I shed tears for my dignity, but I wish I had a video tape of this so I could watch it and laugh.

Lunch was disappointingly disgusting that day – even the Togolese didn’t like it (and oh, how they complained about it in our final meeting). Then, on the bike to Mango, our sleep-over spot, I decided to drive through the middle of a puddle. It was a very deep puddle that soaked my shoes and half my bike bag. Granted, this and the following incident are due to my own stupidity (who drives through the middle of the puddle?!).

Certain people will remember an accident in 2005 involving a new digital point-and-shoot and sledding outside Geneva. It appears I do not learn from my dumb mistakes. I recently purchased (finally) a lovely digital SLR Nikon camera that I had to take on AIDS ride (I did lose my little camera’s charger, and we had to have photos for the sponsor, so I did actually have to bring it). I was very careful all week – very careful, that is, until Wednesday night in Mango when I walked away and the bike fell on the cement. And the camera was on the top… and the lens broke (not the glass). It still works well enough so that I can take pictures, but it’s certainly broken. I am still berating myself for being an idiot and now have to figure out how to repair this from West Africa.

So, in addition to my friend seizing, I gave myself another reason to be blue. Then, on Thursday morning, a counterpart flipped his bike and split his large toenail in half. That evening, a volunteer crashed and lost a camera. Amazingly, two villagers found and returned it the next day.

After dinner Thursday, the counterparts tricked Coordinator #2 and I into a meeting. We wanted to play with numbers that night and meet the next morning to give them their money. That afternoon, I’d given the driver money to buy watermelon, so we thought we’d eat ours with them. Instead of a fun chat, we had a serious complaint session.

It started out with someone, representing the group, reminding the coordinator that they were still very concerned about per diem (as if she’d forgotten and hadn’t stressed every day over how to get them something) and that they couldn’t go back to village empty-handed. This is a valid point – they could all have been doing something else that week, and Peace Corps events usually include per diem. Still, certain counterparts had been told that there would be no money, that this was volunteer work, that if they had other things to do, they should do those activities. But they came anyway and acted surprised when they heard there was no money.

They complained about the food, how it was often late in arriving and how it was terrible on Wednesday.

“We only tried it because we didn’t want to hurt your feelings. It gave us diarrhea. That’s not ok.”

“Do you think I wanted to eat that?” I replied. “Will and I ate more than anyone, and we don’t have diarrhea.” What I thought was, “Do you think I enjoy leaving pizza for doughy food with gluey sauce that gives me diarrhea for TWO YEARS? Many things could have caused the diarrhea.”

After many more complaints (pain, fatigue, heat, lack of “encouragement,” which means money), our coordinator spoke. She explained that it was very hard losing a close friend and co-worker to a seizure at the beginning of the week. She hadn’t been in charge of money, so now she was trying to figure that out, as well as everything else. She mentioned that it was discouraging to run around doing everything and never hear a “thank you”. Finally, she said that for Americans, volunteer work means free, and we didn’t realize that it’s not the same here, even if you tell someone there’s no money.

The responses to her show of feelings were, “Volunteer work is for rich people,” and “God will thank you.” This is where I left to cry out of frustration and rage.

Volunteer work is easier the more comfortable you are – if you work three jobs, it’s difficult to find time to work for free. I also think that any time I’ve volunteered, I’ve gotten something more than warm feelings out of it – credit hours, resume padders, experience. In Togo, it’s money. So I shouldn’t judge. But I did, and all I’m left with is, “Why am I wasting two years here, when I could be doing other work that interests me somewhere more comfortable?”

Anyway, we gave them about $8.00 each, plus their travel costs, mostly out of the coordinator’s wallet. The majority of them were still displeased and grumbly and almost refused to sign a shirt the volunteers gave to the coordinator as a “thank you”. After our morning presentations, I came back to find Coordinator #2 lying on a mat, finally knocked out from severe dehydration. She recovered enough to oversee the final presentation, which is grand, as I didn’t know exactly what to do.

So, that was my discouraging week. It’s unfair to let this effect my feelings toward my village, but I can’t help thinking that anyone who’s worked with me has been disgruntled because I didn’t give them any money. I have never wanted to go home as much as this week, but I’m sticking it out in Togo. Just maybe not in my village…

In September, I applied for a position with the organization Population Services International (PSI) in Lomé. They hire a volunteer or two each year to help with their various programs (you can check them out at psi.org). So I would still be a Peace Corps volunteer but with a 9-5 job. I applied to work in their the HIV/AIDS education program, especially with youth and women. There is a chance I’d get to do photo and design work. I had my interview today and I think it went well. Before the interview, I was unsure about taking the job – I feel guilty about leaving village. But I think I can get over it. I’ve always wanted to work with an organization in the HIV/AIDS sector, and I think this would be great experience. I do, however, welcome any advice.

Until next time, and happy elections to all!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Week of AIDS activities

18 October 2008

I’m in Dapaong again, and it’s all for work.

On Thursday, my program director, Tchao, visited me in village. After quizzing me about my activities, eating watermelon (they’re back!) and visiting Saibou at the clinic, we went to Dapaong in a Peace Corps car. Life in Togo must be so different if you have a private, air-conditioned car.

Today we had our first “AIDS club” meeting, and I think it went really well. A little refresher: the club consists of eight volunteers who will meet once a month with between 50 and 100 kids from a Dapaong AIDS association, Vivre dans l’esperance. The kids are all “infected or affected by AIDS” and some are as young as seven, others as old as 20. The plan is to play games and have fun but also teach them useful information like income-generating activities, reproductive health practices, budgeting and so on. The seven-year-olds may just get games and songs.

Our first meeting consisted of ice breakers and group work. In the small groups, the kids were meant to brainstorm activities they’d like to do in the club. We got everything from playing soccer, dancing and singing to learning computer skills and teaching children to read. Then we had them think of potential names for the club and held an election. “Children’s Club” won, but since there are some very old children, we might combine it with “Leaders of Tomorrow”. Children and Leaders’ Club.

I think one thing I could have improved was the introduction of the club. The kids were a little unclear about why they were there, and I just launched into volunteer introductions without explaining Peace Corps or our vision for the club. Hopefully they’ll forgive me and come back next month.

AIDS Ride starts on Monday from Dapaong. This is the bike tour that volunteers do throughout Togo’s regions. We bike through villages and stop to do AIDS presentations, spending the nights in schools. Last year I got dehydrated and spent a whole day in the chase car and sleeping on a school bench. This year, I plan to avoid that by drinking ORS (oral rehydration salts, pretty disgusting) every day.

This will be my only bike tour this year. I decided to pass on Tour de Togo – biking the whole country once is enough, I think. However, it will take place again this November, and if anyone would like to donate a second time for girls’ education, we’re collecting. Let me know.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Another vacation!

9 October 9 2008
Remember when I said I would write more frequent updates? I’ve done really well so far on that promise, no?

I’ve just finished another vacation (I plan to return to village soon). My parents arrived in Ghana on September 25th and leave from Accra tomorrow. During their time here, I ran the marathon, then we went to the beach for five days, and then we spent a few brief days in Togo.

The marathon was basically what one would expect in West Africa. I spent the night with the three other Togo PCVs running the full marathon. Garth and Maureen, a couple who work in Ghana, both former PCVs, opened their house to us, which was super generous and very helpful. We woke up at 3 a.m. for our supposed 5:30 start in Pram-Pram. A van full of other PCVs picked us up on the side of the road around 3:30 and drove us to the village. Except we weren’t starting in the village, but at the Ghana Man Center. We eventually found that and at 4:30 were the first people there. No race officials. No one else.

Eventually more people showed up, but by 6 we started walking back in the direction we came. A bus pulled up, and a man leaned out and yelled, “You have gone too far! Did you see the white line? The starting line?”

We turned around and walked back, to find the white line that the guy drew about 10 minutes after asking us about it (the starting point had been marked by a pile of leaves and rocks). Once everyone else arrived by bus and van, we started – at seven, an hour and a half late.

Things went well for the first 10 miles or so. I stuck to my very slow pace and took advantage of the infrequent water stops. Fortunately, my parents and another couple, the Iwans, drove the course and gave everyone water when there were no stations. Without their help and cheering, those 26.2 miles would have been a lot more difficult and lonely. Except for that part where we ran through a market, along a traffic-clogged, two lane road. That wasn’t lonely, just extra challenging, especially since by then, everything hurt and I wanted to cry.

Anyway, we all finished and then ate lots of food that evening. I had a falafel, and about an hour later, when everyone else arrived, I had my margarita and nachos. And a brownie with ice cream. There were also chocolate bars in there somewhere.

The next morning, my parents and I drove five hours west to the Green Turtle Lodge, an eco-friendly paradise, basically. IT WAS SO NICE! They operate on solar-energy, have self-composting toilets (glorified latrines), hire local people in all kinds of capacities, and lead canoe trips, hikes and tours around the area. We went on the mangrove swamp tour, and I saw a monkey and a very large reptile (mom and dad were looking in the wrong direction both times). I went swimming every day, ate excellent food, wrote letters and read. I’m going back for Christmas.

We only spent a few days in Togo – went up on the “Lomé Limo” on Monday, spent a day in village, then came back to Lomé yesterday. My parents really liked my village, and a guy I work with treated them to guinea fowl and beers (I got beer, but no guinea fowl – even though it looked delicious. Still a strictly seafood “vegetarian”). The middle school president gave them a school tour, which means they visited all five classrooms and saw all 500 or so students. I think one day in Sagbiebou was exactly enough time.

Yesterday, a driver from Lomé picked us up to drive us back. Not 50 kilometers from my village, he hit a pothole and got two flat tires. I don’t think he knew how to change his tires – he didn’t know where to find any of the tire-changing tools in the car – because Dad and a guy on a bike did most of the work. Then Francis the Driver disappeared for an hour looking for a second tire, or getting it fixed, I don’t know. We made it to Lomé around 5 p.m., so it all worked out. Mom and Dad left for Accra around noon, and it’s back to normal life in Togo for me. So write me a letter, cause you know I get lonely.

Pictures from marathon are at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2031439&l=10944&id=66700997 and pictures from Green Turtle are at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2031442&l=e6f54&id=66700997. I hope those work for you.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Two for One

8 September
I’ve decided to start writing more updates. This means writing more frequently at home than only on the night before I leave for an internet-equipped destination. The updates won’t be more frequent, just longer. Skimming is totally acceptable. I never read those long, chunky emails from my overseas friends, either.

I’m very slowly getting back into work. A week after leaving the States, I got back to village. The ride from Lomé took two days, in a Peace Corps car. As we fishtailed through stretches of mud on the Kpalimé road, I was genuinely nervous, especially since there was an overturned truck in the middle of one stretch.

I stayed in village three days, long enough to give out gifts. Then I went to Kara for our one-year party and to Dapaong for a goodbye party. Then I came back and did some work.

Work means I had a peer educator meeting, where we decided we should have a second meeting the following week. Meetings would be so much more interesting if anyone else SPOKE. I was nervous about having two grown men (my male “apprentices,” a tailor and an elementary school teacher) in a group of teenagers. Now I’m relieved they’re there, because they are the only contributors. This must be payback for all the staring I did at my teachers when they asked us questions in class.

To get me through my first month back, I’m looking forward to the marathon and my parents’ visit. More accurately, I’m looking forward to my parents’ visit and dreading the marathon. Sixteen miles was challenging, but I felt good about it (maybe because I ran it in the States). I finished 18 miles, but I walked. On Sunday, I ran to Mango, hoping to do at least 18 again, maybe even 20. Right… I walked early on and maybe covered 16 miles, mostly trudging. There are three of us in the north running the full marathon, and we’ve all acknowledged that it’s going to destroy us, but we’re not backing out now. I’m going to run – or trudge, walk and crawl – this thing and then never run more than 13 miles again.

11 September
Now let’s talk about street food.

Everyone has been to a fair – state fairs, renaissance festivals, international festivals, street fairs – whatever, you’ve been to one. And every one of those fairs has food booths. After an hour of looking at livestock or crafts or riding rides, you take your tickets to a booth and make the exchange. Tickets for corn on the cob, corn dogs, popcorn, or non-corn delectables: turkey legs, funnel cake, Lemon Chills, cotton candy. Then it’s back to the rides.

Life in Togo is like the fair, minus the midway (bush taxi rides do not count), quilts and butter sculptures. That leave the food booths, or what we call street food. Food you buy – with money, not tickets – on the side of the road or in the market. It’s cheap and easy and when it’s finished, because this is Togo, you can throw the corncob on the ground.

You can easily make a meal of street food. For instance, today for lunch I had 100 CFA (about 25 cents, which is enough) of rice and sauce. In Sagbiebou, there’s always a woman selling rice with tomato or peanut sauce. Sometimes it’s rice pâte, which is rice reshaped into balls. Soja, fried pieces of tofu in tomato sauce, is also readily available year-round. Now there’s also fufu.

None of this food is that interesting, and after three fufu dinners in a week, I’m already sick of it. The street food I dream about is in Lomé. In the Kodjoviakope neighborhood, by the Texaco station, the avocado-bean sandwich lady serves a delicious breakfast. Little white beans in sauce, avocado mashed with onions, oil and salt, spread on a piece of baguette, all for less than a dollar. I can also usually find fried plantains in Lomé. If you mix those with black-eyed peas and sauce, you get another bizarrely tasty meal. And you always have the option of eating at the stand, or taking it to go in a black plastic bag.

The real beauty of street food, however, is snacking. From Lomé to Cinkassé, you can buy food along the highway, although it’s a good idea to also bring your own snacks. The bush taxi driver only stops briefly when you want to buy bread. But when he stops, even briefly, vendors ambush the car. People of all shapes, sizes and ages shout into the car window, selling their food. Fried plantain chips, kebabs, hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, bread, lime or hibiscus juice. I know I can always get dates in Mango and fried bean cakes at the Atakpamé stop. With luck, a Fan Milk man will cycle by, selling ice cream that you suck out of a plastic package. With even more luck, my vanilla Fan Ice will still be frozen. When I feel like indulging in village, I buy beignets made from corn flour. Then I take them home, dip them in sugar and pretend I’m in New Orleans.

Then there is seasonal street food. Right now we’re in corn season, and I can have corn on the cob, grilled or boiled, every day (both are extra chewy, sometimes so much so that I have to give my jaw a break). Starting in late November, it’s watermelon season in Sagbiebou, available whole or by the slice. There are carrots, which only qualify as street food if you’re willing to eat them unwashed off the street. Same for mangoes.

And all of it’s cheap. Even if your corn isn’t sweet, it only cost about five cents, not five tickets (you know that fair food is overpriced. The tickets are supposed to make you forget). I still miss pizza, but I’ll also miss the acceptability of walking around eating beans out of a plastic bag by hand.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Mostly "home" again

In the future, I think I'll try to avoid flying to Dubai unless my final destination is east of it. Emirates is very nice, but I left Louisville at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday and got to Togo at 6 p.m. Thursday. And I still have to traverse most of Togo before I'm really home.

I did spend the night in Dubai, which I can only describe as surreal. I slept on the plane, so I wasn't completely exhausted, but I went to a mall at 10 o'clock at night. A mall with lots of jewelry, clothes and carpet shops, but no bookstores. A Cinnabon and a Starbucks, but again, no bookstores. So I just wandered around and spent some time taking pictures of the Burj Al-Arab hotel:

Then I explored more than necessary and ended up walking around the parking garage and loading bays of the mall. They looked much like parking garages and loading bays in the States. I got back into the mall through the prep area of one of its restaurants, then got a cab home. The ride took me across the city. I got to see all the tall buildings, including the Burj Dubai, which will be the tallest structure in the world when completed. I also saw every chain restaurant an American needs: Fuddruckers, Applebee's, Chili's and TGIFriday's. And the Mall of the Emirates, where I probably should have gone. It's the one with the indoor skiing.

I'm sure Dubai has much to offer besides American restaurants and malls, but when it's night and you're alone, the mall will have to do. And there are zero malls in Togo, so now I've had my fill.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

From the United States of America

There's nothing like 15 months in West Africa (not Ghana) to make you appreciate America. Parks with drinking fountains and bathrooms, coffee shops, wheat beer, bookstores, movie theaters showing new releases, cheese on everything, convenience stores, Target, pizza... last night I ate an entire pizza and a plate of cheese fries. I love visiting.

And now the camp pictures I promised:

All the campers had challenges they had to complete. This one involved getting a bucket full of water out of the circle without the use of a rope and without entering the circle... full of fire ants.

Another method.

The Butterflies getting ready for the relay race and scavenger hunt, which they won.

The Butterflies posing at their market table with the bracelets and toffee.

All the beaded jewelry.

Check out his shirt.

Co-counselor Amy and I with our Papillons on the last day of camp. I might have shed a little tear. But only because kids started first.

Now I have a few more days in the States and then it's back for lap two. But first I will eat five more pizzas.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Things Fall Apart, Part I

I’ve been traveling since Saturday and I have yet to board a plane.

On Friday my dad called to tell me Togo made international news because of flooding down south. I knew a bridge was out on the country’s only national highway, but he got me worried. So instead of leaving Dapaong on Sunday, I went up Saturday morning and got a ride with a friend to Kara that evening. I thought I might be able to get on the bus to Lomé the next morning without a reservation. They were backed up for three days.

Fortunately, another volunteer was going down Sunday morning and we caught a bush taxi together. Everyone was in the car by 6:45 a.m. We didn’t leave Kara until 7:45. We arrived at the station in Lomé at 7:30 p.m. Twelve hours for a trip that usually takes five hours. The detour on the Kpalimé road alone took nearly five hours. We would have arrived earlier if the driver hadn’t made 53 unnecessary stops – we did a lot of screaming at him. In the end, he gave us money for our taxi ride to the Peace Corps office, but probably only because he wanted us to shut up. 

It turns out nine bridges are out on the national highway, not one or two. I’m waiting for the Kpalimé road to go. It already had as many holes as a Peace Corps volunteer’s underwear after a year in Africa. Now every bus, bush taxi and 18-wheeler has to take it to get to and from Lomé. Volunteers are already speculating about evacuation. The government deregulates gas prices at the end of the month and soon travel will be next to impossible. I’m skeptical about evacuation, but everything just needs to hold on until I get back. Don’t want to miss the fun. 

Friday, July 25, 2008

Camp and home improvements

Even though I spent an hour and a half online last Sunday, I failed to post an update. Here’s a summary of what happened after Lomé.

I spent July 4th and too many days after in Kpalime with volunteer friends who pampered me (and their three to five other guests) so much that I extended my stay by a day. I saw my host family, and yes, Esse is pregnant. She said the baby is due around December, so maybe I’ll have to plan a visit around then.

From Kpalime I went to Tchifama, a village just outside Pagala, where we do our in-service trainings and camps. I spent the night with another friend, who shares the village chief’s compound with 20-something people. Very noisy. It was great just for a night – we had burritos and carrot cake for dinner. The next morning we went to Pagala for camp training.

I loved and loathed camp but overall had a positive experience (so much so that I’m trying to establish a once-a-month volunteer-kid get-together with the association in Dapaong). Amy and I were Butterflies with the oldest girls. This meant we could leave them for five minutes and not worry that anyone would lock herself in her room at night and pee on the floor. They still managed to drive me crazy half the time, especially when it was time to go anywhere. But they eventually cut down their prep time, their table manners improved quickly and they got all the activities we did with them.

During the week, all the cabins learned income-generating activities like making popcorn or juice. Then we had a little market at the end of the week with bottle cap money. The Butterflies made beaded bracelets and toffee. I thought we were just going to make single-strand bracelets, but the woman who taught our session had everyone do a really complicated four-strand method. Turns out she thought we were making beaded AIDS ribbons. We managed to make enough bracelets by Friday and the kids purchased them all with their bottle caps.

On Thursday night, we had a candlelight vigil. I think the point is to give kids a chance to share their stories. I heard that last year, only one girl spoke, so I expected a repeat. Instead we had lots of sharing and LOTS of crying. I didn’t fully understand a single story, but it still made me cry because a roomful of nine-to-15-year olds were talking about their dead parents and AIDS. Besides making everyone cry, I fail to see the point of this activity, but the associations insist we do it. The next night we had a dance party, so that ended things on a happier note.

The biggest news back in village is that I got wired! My landlord plans to move into the compound soon, maybe with his family, but definitely with his generator. The electrician came Wednesday, knocked holes into my walls and now I have light bulbs and outlets. Very exciting.

One more week in village and then I begin my long voyage to America. Where I will post pictures of cute children at camp.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Workin' hard in West Africa

I just worked more in the last week than I have since I got to post (unless you count biking as work).

My peer educators are trained! I don't know how well I trained them - most of them missed some, if not half, of the questions on the final exam - but training ended Sunday and everyone survived. Over the three days, I rollercoastered from extreme satisfaction and joy to impatience, frustration and near tears. I considered firing (not possible) Azembe, an instigating 10th-grade student. He had a comment on everything the women's rights speakers said and tried to argue both that things were better when women had to beg their husbands to travel and that we should isolate HIV positive people. I get fired up about both those subjects. Instead of grabbing him by the neck and shaking him, I babbled on in my best angry French about tolerance and gender equality. Then my counterpart translated.

A quick tangent on that – I’m learning, a little belatedly, that if I want to increase comprehension during activities, I need a counterpart to translate. I mean translate from Linda’s Non-African French to African French, not translate into local language. Fortunately, for most of the weekend, I had a great counterpart, Karim, who is the president of the moto syndicate. I think that means he’s the boss of Sagbiebou’s moto drivers.

After we finished training on Sunday, Saibou (nurse counterpart) and Mr. Tairou (teacher counterpart) told me we needed to motivate the kids with Cokes. I’d offered to take those two, Karim and another teacher who helped me out for beers, but it ended up being the whole group – you can’t expect people to participate in anything if they’re not going to get anything out of it (no, certificates and homemade sugar-cookies are not enough). It was fun, and we split the bill three ways. The kids did a “banc” (a cheer) for me, and when they left, I engaged in two beers and lively conversation with the counterparts and one of the girls’ fathers. Beers in Africa are twice the size of American beer. I slept very well.

On Monday, I headed south. I spent the night in Kara, then came down to Lome on the bus Tuesday morning. After two and a half days of editing, our Perspectives-GAD Newsletter combination issue is complete. I’ve forgotten how tedious producing a publication is. Still, it looks good (mostly thanks to Amanda) and come next Friday, volunteers will have something new to read.

On Wednesday night, the ambassador extended an open invitation to volunteers to attend a 232nd birthday reception for America, which took place in his very large backyard. We went, partook of the free drinks and finger foods, mingled, then moved on. Kind of fancy, except it was clear who the non-Lomé volunteers were (Amanda and I), based on our grungy attire. I don’t even own a nice pair of shoes anymore. Anyway, it was interesting to hang out with ex-pats and meet non-Peace Corps people.

Camp Espoir “Training of Trainers” starts next Friday. Rather than going back to village (an all day affair) and then repeating half the trip next Thursday, I’m going to visit friends in Kpalimé and outside Pagala. Hopefully I can see my host family. I heard rumors that my host mom, Esse, is pregnant or has already had the baby. So we’ll see.

Enjoy the photos.

In Benin. Awaiting your praise for this one.

This canoe trip (Benin) was much less harrowing than crossing the Komoungou with bike bags.

Sagbiebou: an antennae surrounded by mud huts.

The mosque. And a lizard.

(l-r) Mr. Tairou, peer educators with their certificates and Saibou.

Rachidatou's dad, Rachidatou and Mme Awa.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I Like Fufu

When I got here, I never thought the words, “I really want some fufu” would ever pass from my lips, but… it’s true. I now like fufu (for those unversed in West African cuisine, it’s pounded yam. Not sweet potato, although that would be delicious, just a big, white yam).

Now that I’ve made that confession, we can move on. My peer educator training is this weekend, and I can’t help feeling anxious. Here are some of the challenges I’ve encountered during the planning process.

1. After announcing the students selected to attend training I heard that one girl was upset because she wasn’t chosen. We based selection on their quizzes and input from guy I’m working with, Mr. Tairoo. So this girl had let her friend copy her quiz, and the friend was picked (not by me. Tairoo suggested her). Girl One came to see me, so we decided she could attend. Everyone has to pass the exam at the end of the weekend, without cheating, to officially become a peer educator. Except I have a hard time saying, “No,” so I hope they all pass.

2. Last Friday, Mr. Tairoo told me he was going to be in Dapaong for exam corrections Wednesday through Friday. He might be back on Saturday. The training is from Friday until Sunday. I need a new counterpart for student-related activities. He always does this! He would never tell me when he had to leave town on a Wednesday afternoon, so I would wait around for him to start health club. I don’t know how to replace him without offending him, though.

3. Yesterday, a student told me she was going to Mango until Sunday. I told her she couldn’t become a peer educator if she missed training. I really want her to attend - she’s the girl who brings my water, and I’m sending her to camp. I told Tairoo and he talked to her. Now she says she’s coming back Thursday morning.

That’s a glimpse of the frustrating planning process. I should also add to the list my own procrastination. Apparently I intend to plan my sessions in the two days before the training begins.

I spent the weekend in Mango. We had a goodbye party for Cliff, which gave us one last chance to enjoy his delicious curry pasta. On Sunday, Amanda and I did our nine-mile run. We ran out to the hippo reservoir, and this time we got a great look at the hippos. They were already in the water but very close to our path (not dangerously so. No worries, I’m not going to provoke hippo rage). As we ran past, they yawned and gnawed on each others’ heads. Looking at hippos took up about two minutes, at most, of a 90 minute run. I hope the marathon route includes distracting scenery, because if it’s 26.2 miles or rice fields, I’ll just quit.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

"Et les activités?"

So I thought maybe I might spend about 10 days in village after returning from my Sokodé meeting, maybe do a few day trips to Mango and Gando (if you spend the night at home, it counts as being in village. Says me). Then I ran out of cooking gas mid-meal. And since there’s a constant shortage of gas in Togo and when we get it in Dapaong, it sells out in about half a day, I took my empty tank up that weekend. So much for 10 days in village.

In Dapaong, I bought a little coal stove for about three dollars. Someone in village gave me a huge bag of coal. For my first village-style cooking session, I made hard-boiled eggs. After some fire-starting tips from my brother (the first time I got fed up and just added kerosene), I moved on to lentils and rice and pasta salad. Then I got a new gas tank. But now I’m a coal-fire genius… with a stove and a huge bag of coal that I won’t use for another nine months.

I’ve been semi-busy. Last Wednesday I gave a quiz to middle-schoolers interested in becoming peer educators. They did, oh, pretty abysmally. I was especially disappointed that no one got the family planning question, including the three girls who attended the family planning talk the week before. But we’ve selected students and hopefully I’ll be able to train them over a weekend in June.

This Tuesday and Wednesday, I was in Kara for a Camp Espoir meeting. Espoir is a camp for kids infected and effected by AIDS. Our camp is in July, and in the meeting, we went over logistics and started planning sessions with the Togolese counterparts from the different associations that send the kids. I’m really looking forward to camp.

I got back to Sagbiebou Wednesday evening. I spent Thursday doing peer educators stuff and working in the clinic, then biked out again on Friday. In Mango, I planted a small moringa nursery with the environment volunteer there. We only did 16 trees, but it’s for the AIDS groups I work with, which only has about 10 members. Everyone will get a tree. At our meeting on Sunday, I invited everyone to come help. One woman came in time to help plant, one came late. I made a coffee crumb cake the night before, so after planting, we had cake. Then, after going to the on-time-lady's house to greet her family, I biked to Barkoissi and had lunch with Amanda. I caught a car for the rest of the Dapaong trek. 40k is enough biking for one day.

Official marathon training started last week – I’m training for the Accra International Marathon at the end of September. Today was supposed to be my “long” seven-mile run, but I woke up feeling… indisposed. I’m hoping that goes away by tomorrow. Unlike my heat rash, which apparently is never going to go away, at least as long as I’m sweating in my cement house in village. I actually have started missing cold weather. Just a little.

Friday, May 16, 2008

So, this week I managed to stay in village for about four days. I'm in Sokode for a Gender and Development Committe tomorrow (I'm the communications coordinator or chair or whatever - that just means I edit a newsletter), then back to village on Sunday.

But in those four days, I planted 52 moringa trees by the clinic and gave two family planning talks to a total of about 56 women. One of them even got a Depo shot. And before you go thinking planting 52 trees is hard work, let me tell you that it's not. Bila hacked holes into the ground with my machete (yes. I have a machete and it's very useful for digging holes) and I dropped two seeds into each hole. Then we watered the mounds in the evening. The plan is... well, I'm not sure what the plan is, but it has something to do with getting women to start feeding their kids moringa leaves or powder made from the leaves. For those who don't know, the moringa tree is basically a miracle tree. You can use all its parts for something - the leaves are super nutritious, you can eat the flowers, the pods, the seeds (or use the seeds to grow more trees), the roots... it's great. And it's really hardy - a tree near my house got crushed by something. There was nothing but a stick left, and now a new tree is growing in the same spot. Google it. So I'm planting with the hopes of starting a trend.

That's about all I have to report for now. Rainy season moved in this week - I got to use a blanket a few nights and I even wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt one day! But I still have heat rash. One thing at a time.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Grass is Always Greener

After four days in Benin, three of which were largely spent in a hotel conference room, I’ve decided that Benin is a more advanced version of Togo. Then again, the Benin volunteers heard Togo was a better version of Benin, but I bet none of them ever tried to get from the south to the north of Togo in one day. And we did that almost effortlessly in their country.

The conference was interesting, and I’d like to incorporate some of what I learned in my work. One afternoon we prepared recipes we created, which had to contain a certain amount of calories and protein. My group made mango porridge, which is less delicious than it sounds, but better than I expected.

The evening the conference ended, some Benin volunteers took us to see hippos. One of the volunteers, Holley, works with a guide there who does these tours. For about $2.00 (not including the roundtrip moto ride), the guide leads you down a path to a lake, then escorts you around in a large canoe for as long as you want. It’s so peaceful and beautiful, especially in the evening, that I didn’t care if we saw the hippos. We did, but again, I have no pictures, as it’s unwise to get close enough for pictures (at least with the zoom on my camera). At the end of the tour, the guide gives everyone a shot of sodabi (local liquor that feels like it’s burning holes in your esophagus) and the chance to sign the “livre d’or” – the Book of Gold, which is a school notebook.

On Friday morning, we left Lokossa around 8:00 a.m. in a bush taxi organized by two Benin PCVs. We arrived in Bohicon just in time to catch a bus north to Natitingou, where we took another taxi to the Togolese border. The whole trip was amazingly easy, with minimal harassment and only one long wait for a taxi in Natitingou, which we spent at an internet café.

So that was a fun and educational little trip. Coming back to Savanes was amazing, because it rained a few times, and it looks like spring, all green everywhere. It still feels like summer, though, and my heat rash came back in all its prickly redness the first night in Togo. I just keep telling myself it’s going to cool down soon. I’ll let you know how that works out.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Photo update

Since I'm now in Lome, on the way to that conference in Benin, I have speedy internet access. Here are some photos... from months ago.

Koudapani (cultural festival for the Oti prefecture - that's where I live) festival in Mango in January.

With Heidi at the reservoir outside Mango where the hippos live (no hippo pics, sorry, they were too far away for any good pictures)

The girls who played in the Gando vs Sagbiebou game on March 9th - no, those are not our uniforms, we borrowed them.

The girls who didn't get to play in that game.

Saturday morning runners.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hello Again

My father told me on the phone last week that my “readership awaits”. Apologies, readers. When I was in Dapaong two weekends ago, I had little motivation to write about my activities in village. I think I’m at the stage in my service called What Am I Doing Here? At least, I hope it’s a stage.

I spent a lot of mornings at the clinic this month, recording kids’ weights and names. Then Bila, one of the clinic workers, and I visited some of the kids at home to conduct surveys with their mothers. All this is in preparation for a Hearth program seminar in Benin next week. More on the Hearth program if I can actually get it to work in village. It’s basically a program that teaches mothers how to prepare various nutritious meals for their children. And as we’re in the famine season, now would be a great time to do this. Unfortunately, the rain is also starting. Rain means fieldwork and fieldwork probably means everyone stops coming to any activities I plan.

Not that attendance is high in the first place. I finally had eight girls show up for a sex-ed class this Wednesday. Perhaps I could get a bigger crowd if I said, “We’re going to talk about sex!” Or maybe it would scare everyone away.

Bila and I gave a talk on family planning to about 27 women in the market. Three or four ran away when I showed a picture of man putting on a condom. The ones who stayed until the very end, though, were very adamant about the benefits of birth control. Then this week, the imam’s wife, who missed that talk but apparently heard about it, came and asked me about natural methods. I told her what I could but encouraged her to visit the mid-wife for more info.

Life in my compound has been… troubled. The younger girl, Hanatou, decided she no longer loved me this month. And she started whine-crying (not real, I Just Fell and Hurt Myself Crying, no, I’m Not Getting My Way Crying) at everything. Lately, she’s started greeting me again and has stopped crying when I say her name. There’s still the occasional wailing incident, though. I like it best when that happens around 1 a.m.

Two weeks, ago, the village soccer team spent the night in our courtyard. The school director, who lives in the compound, coaches the team. He also helps out with the girls’ team, which has now fallen aside since the men’s team seems to be in season. Thanks a lot. Anyway, the guys had a game on a Wednesday, so that Tuesday night the whole team plus many more men crowded the compound. I’ve been sleeping on a cot on my porch because it’s too hot to sleep inside, but I spent that night in the house. They had a game again yesterday, but Saibou (nurse counterpart) told me he told them that they couldn’t sleep at people’s houses. So they slept at the school.

Finally, Hanatou’s parents have taken to extended shouting matches. One took place just before my last trip to Dapaong. At the time, I suspected Mr. might have hit his wife, Alima. This Tuesday evening, they started up again. They shout for a while, he leaves, she rants at him in his absence. On Wednesday morning, they were at it again, full force. I have NO idea what they’re saying, because it’s all in local language, and not a local language I know.

So I had just bucket-bathed and was getting ready to go to the clinic when I heard scuffling. Because I’m nosy (let’s call it concerned), I peeked out the door. She was holding a wash basin over her head, threatening or defending, but definitely yelling. He was walking away. Then she yelled something, he 180ed, knocked her on the ground and his arms started flying. I ran out in only my pagne wrap (so, basically a towel), yelling, “Hey! Hey! Stop!” and what I think is his name. The old lady in the hut next door also ran over, and after a small eternity, he stopped, walked towards me and said, “Awa, c’est fini” (it’s finished) over his wife’s yelling and my, “I don’t know what you’re fighting about! C’est pas bon! I don’t understand!”

I still don’t know what they’re fighting about, but even if she’s saying terrible things about his mother, it’s not ok to beat your wife. I know I should probably mind my own business, but when it takes place in my courtyard in broad daylight, it becomes my business. Fortunately, he’s been traveling to Lome a lot, giving us some peace.
And that’s the news from Sagbiebou, where there are more mangoes than the women can sell, but still no toilet paper.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Why It's Easier to be a Togolese Man

Zenabou was a ninth-grade student in Sagbiebou. She was one of the three girls on my six-person Women’s Day committee. She came to clubs, ran with the “footing” group every Saturday, and was one of the more talented girls on our newly formed soccer team. Two weeks ago, she gave me a little local language lesson while we waited for the car to take us to the team’s first real game in Gando. That Wednesday, on the sidelines at a boys’ game, she was kicking a ball around with her friend Adjara .

This Monday morning at our training in Pagala, my counterpart, Bila, told me that Zenabou died Sunday night. He didn’t know why, so during the day, I came up with my own answers. Young people who have died in my life died from meningitis, Long Q-T Syndrome (a heart condition) and car accidents, so I grouped Zenabou into the random deaths club, blaming maybe meningitis, maybe some other viral infection. These were situations I could handle.

Bila caught me on my way to dinner that evening, and once again, corrected my idealistic assumptions. Zenabou took pills to give herself an abortion. And she succeeded all too well.

I have so many questions. Did her friends know she was pregnant? Did she tell anyone what she was going to do? Was she already dead when they took her to the clinic on Sunday night? Who’s the father? What will happen to him? What could I have done to help her?

In the very back of my brain, I feel like I should have done more – made it clear to the girls on the soccer team and in the clubs that I was available if they needed to talk. Had club meetings on more than just HIV/AIDS. Started sex-ed classes. The irony of the situation is that the day I learned all this, we were talking about family planning and sex-ed classes in schools. Now I’m definitely going to address the situation, but it shouldn’t have taken a failed abortion for me to realize that there was a situation that needed addressing.

So. That’s life in Togo, because unfortunately, this isn’t a unique incident. Abortion in Togo is only legal in cases of rape and incest, so girls will take herbs (or pills) to self-abort. The volunteer who led our sex-ed session said she found that in her classes, girls really didn’t make the connection between sex and pregnancy. So condom demonstrations and encouraging abstinence are probably a waste of time unless you start from the very beginning, which it seems is what I’ll have to do.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Women’s Day went ok, even though we started three hours late, and the chief’s representative didn’t really know what he was attending (“Today on the International Day of… Nutrition? What is it?”). We had a crowd at the soccer game, and in organizing a student vs. apprentice game, I also started a Sagbiebou girls team.

I wish we hadn’t just lost one of our stars.

Monday, March 3, 2008

It Takes Some Getting Used To

Although I’ve been in Togo for almost nine months, there are certain parts of the culture that still surprise or irritate me and that I have yet to fully appreciate. The two that stand out most are touch and observations.

Most Togolese and I have vastly different concepts of personal space. I like personal space; they like to share my personal space. Obviously, in overcrowded bush taxis, there is no option but to acquaint your thighs with your neighbors’. But about a month ago, I got a ride from a counterpart’s friend. I had the back of this Mercedes to myself until we picked up a lady heading home for a funeral. We talked a little, and then she started stroking my hair. I realize my hair is different, and I didn’t really mind. My friend’s counterpart regularly puts her hand somewhere on my friend’s person – thigh, butt, shoulder – and leaves it there throughout the meeting or car ride. So I can handle a little hair-stroking.

The touching seems to be restricted to same sex (again, aside from bush taxis, aggressive street vendors and creepy men). I rarely see public displays of affection between men and women out of adolescence. But boys and men will hold hands or put their arms around each other and no one blinks an eye. In the States, if your son was holding hands with the neighbor boy, you might wonder. Here, it’s a sign of friendship. But if a dude tries to hold my hand, he’s not trying to be friends.

So the touching surprises me; what irritates my politically correct background is the statement of the obvious. Not just things like, “It’s hot,” but the speaking aloud of things we, as Americans, observe and keep to ourselves. If we meet someone overweight, we see that; here, he or she is called “le gros/la grosse” (the fat boy or girl). If you’re white, you’re “The White Man/Woman” and if you’re Asian, you’re “the Chinese”. If you suffer from acne, you will be reminded of this and questioned why you have those “buttons” on your face, and do they hurt? This week, a man asked what was going on with my chest (I have little bumps, probably from the heat, that show if I wear a tank top). I told him I didn’t know, but it was ok.

"Du courage!” he said. Have courage, a common Togolese phrase. I burst out laughing, which is probably rude, but usually I just get angry.

In Lome in December, I walked into a bookstore. It was hot outside (surprise!) and I was sweaty (surprise!). The doorman, who makes sure you check your bag into a cubby, instructed me to do so, giving me the once-over. Noting the sweat droplets and stains on my shirt, he shared his assessment with me.

“You are really suffering from the heat.”

“And you are very observant,” I said, which does not translate (“observant” is NOT a French word).

Anyway, those are the main things that get me. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes frustrating. It usually depends on if you’re the first or tenth person telling me I’m a white, sweaty person.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Unfortunate Tale of the Cat in the Latrine... and other stuff

Since I arrived in Sagbiebou, my landlord has gradually expanded the compound. We have an almost completed wall enclosing the yard, and behind my neighbors’ house (the ones across the yard with the two little girls), he’s built a shower stall and the beginnings of a latrine. The latrine is currently only a 10-foot hole with cement walls. A wall with a small square window in the middle divides the hole into two compartments. I don’t know why. I’m not that well-versed in latrine construction.

Up until last week, I threw my food waste behind the house, so I passed the latrine hole daily. I always checked to see if anything was new in the hole – lizards fall in frequently and bake to death since cement walls are kind of hard to climb. Then last Monday, there was something new: a black and white cat. I’m fairly sure this was the same cat I’d occasionally seen dodging around in the field behind my house. It’s probably the only cat in Sagbiebou, and I doubt it belonged to anyone.

Pet or not, I wanted the cat out of the latrine. Lizards can bake, but I didn’t want a baked, starved cat on my head. I also thought little would be more fun for children than tormenting a trapped animal. Mission Rescue the Cat (and make a friend?) began. I thought maybe if I saved it, it might hang out and eat rodents.

It wasn’t much of a mission. All I did was find a plank of wood and lower it into the hole so that it rested on the window of the dividing wall. My neighbor helped, and then we left, hoping the cat would figure that out. We checked throughout the day, but it stayed in a corner. I thought maybe it would take a chance at night, when we were quiet and sleeping.

The next morning the cat and plank were gone. Excellent. The cat climbed out and my neighbor removed the plank. As I turned to go back to my house, Alima, my neighbor’s wife, corrected my idealistic assumptions.

“Les enfants l’ont tué,” she said. The kids killed the cat.

“No. It’s not there anymore, it climbed out,” I told her.

“No. The kids killed it. Look, there’s blood.”

Oh. Indeed. There was blood.

So, apparently, these “kids” (I’m thinking they were probably young adults, because that is a deep hole for children) climbed down and killed the cat with a knife.


“To eat.”

I didn’t like Togo very much that day.

Other than that, the last few weeks have been more good than bad. We’re still doing HIV/AIDS in health club, and the English club met for the third time this Wednesday. I think the students enjoy it, although I don’t know if tongue-twisters and the “Hokey-Pokey” will do much for their English. Last Wednesday, they listened to the Voice of America’s “Special English” news broadcast at my house for the first time. They understood “Monday”. We’ll work on that.

Last Friday, I met with three women and three female students to discuss activities for International Women’s Day. We decided to hold a girls’ soccer match with a message given prior to the game. This will be Sagbiebou’s first Women’s Day celebration, and I hope it begins both a tradition and a girls’ soccer team. The men who lead the Saturday morning runs (totally out of my hands now, which is great) have been talking about a team. My counterpart is among this group, and he told me they want to pick the best players from that game to form a team.

Last Sunday, I went to Mango and rode my bike to see the hippos. There’s a dam about five kilometers outside Mango, and that’s where the hippos hang. Other volunteers said that when they visited, some boys were singing and the hippos seemed to love it. So we tried to sing to them. They were shy and stayed out in the water, poking up their heads to see if we were still there. I suppose shy hippos are better than hungry hippos. Next time I want to see more than eyes and ears, though. Maybe we have to learn the African hippo-calling song, since “Hippos! Hippos!” and a “Whole New World” failed.

Friday, February 1, 2008

one photo from South Africa

I meant to upload pictures yesterday but forgot the camera cable at home. The original title of this post was "Two Photos from South Africa", but then the internet stopped working. Not that exciting, but if I don't post this, I'll just have wasted an hour. Just be happy I resisted the urges to photograph walls of yogurt in the grocery store, fancy furniture display windows and all the food I ate.

The backyard at the Rose Guest House in Pretoria.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Why I'm the Worst Teacher Ever

This month’s update drought comes from distraction, not a lack of electricity or internet.

When I last updated, I was about to start teaching. After a dull New Year’s in village – my fault for failing to seek out the parties – I taught three classes. Then I went to South Africa.

I knew before Christmas that I would have to go sometime in January for certain health expertise unavailable in Togo. I expected more notice. Peace Corps called on a Tuesday afternoon, and by Wednesday evening, my travel buddy (who was actually in physical pain, whereas I was in vacation mode) and I were on a plane from Accra, Ghana to Johannesburg.

I spent exactly a week in Pretoria, living every Peace Corps Togo volunteer’s dream – a painless med-evac to “Africa Lite”. The Peace Corps houses med-evacs in a luxurious guesthouse, and I mean luxurious by American, not Togolese standards. I took hot showers, watched many bad movies on TV, ate granola and yogurt AND an egg dish every morning and swam in the pool twice. Between doctor and hospital visits, we frequented two malls, a flea market, the Peace Corps’ internet and Pretoria’s “White House,” the Union Building. I went to the Botanical Gardens, and I ate almost everything I’ve missed in Togo, except for a cream cheese bagel. Apparently, “cream cheese” in South Africa means something different from American cream cheese. So I had a bagel with melted cheddar. Also tasty.

I believe I actually had more language mishaps speaking English in Pretoria than French in Togo. At the Pick ‘N’ Pay grocery store, I heard the man at the check-out ask me if I wanted a packet (I think he actually said, “Plastic”).

“A what?”

“A packet (or plastic)… gestures at plastic bag. What do you call it?”

“Oh. A bag.”

A few days later, another incident at a different grocery store. I asked an employee at the entrance if there was a toilet. He went outside, and I followed him, expecting him to direct me to another store. He grabbed a shopping cart, went back inside and pushed it through the turnstile. I was still following him, thinking it was kind of rude to decide to clean up and then answer my question. He pointed at the cart.

“You can use that.”

I must have given him a WHAT-are-you-talking-about face.

“You wanted a trolley, no?” Um. No.

After making an idiot of myself all around Pretoria, I headed back to Togo in time for CHAP’s three day Project Development and Management (PDM) seminar. It took place at the Peace Corps Training Center in Pagala. It’s basically a retreat center with bucket showers instead of running water.

I got back to village Friday, went to a prefectural cultural fest in Mango on Saturday, cleaned my filthy house on Sunday and quit teaching on Tuesday. During the three classes I taught, I quickly realized that I can’t teach grammar. Maybe with training I could, but I feel it’s unfair to the students to have me teach instead of the director, who knows what he’s doing and is good at it. I realize it’s also unfair (and pitiful) to agree to teach, and then quit after three rounds, and I feel rotten about it. So I’m going to try out an English club and tutoring instead. Maybe we can have more than three meetings.